Recently a friend posted a question for fellow parents on facebook. She wanted to know how they cultivate gratitude in their kids. I have been forming a response in my head, but it has grown too large for a facebook comment. I thought it might do better for a long-overdue post just in time for the American season of gratitude.
This has been a topic that I have revisited over and over again since having children. Not because we have it all figured out. Far from it. Mike and I tend to be glass half-empty kind of people. We complain about so much and forget to be thankful for what we do have. When I began to notice how much my children whine about their circumstances, I discovered that they were simply imitating my own behavior. Like so many lessons that I teach them, I realized that I needed to hear the same words that I was speaking to them. I found that not only did I need to encourage the habit of thankfulness in them but in myself as well.
That being said, here are some ways that we have tried to grow an attitude of thankfulness in ourselves and our children:
*Enjoying the outdoors together. I am not quite sure why, but something about fresh air really clears my mind and helps me to appreciate the world
that we live in. I have noticed that it does the same for my kids. Some of the very rare times that my kids have volunteered a “Thank You, Mommy” have come when we have spent some quality time together going someplace beautiful outdoors.
*Working cheerfully, both together and individually. This is probably the most difficult habit for me to maintain. When I do work in front of my children, I have the opportunity to exemplify what it means to work cheerfully, either by singing or even just smiling while I sweep the floor for the millionth time that day. If I welcome my children to help me with everyday chores when they offer, even if it means more actual work for me, I have the opportunity to model this side-by-side with them. The difficulty in this for me is that I am often in a hurry or disgruntled to be doing the work, and I don’t want to make the extra effort to let them be involved. This is where dealing with my own attitude of complaining becomes imperative.
*Giving kids chores that they are expected to do regularly. Of course, this means taking into account their age and ability and ensuring they have the tools they need to complete the job. As they get older and are able to handle more responsibility, they begin to appreciate the amount of time and energy that goes into maintaining the life that they have come to expect. Even a child who has a full schedule of school, sports and other extra curricular activities needs household responsibilities to keep them grounded in the nitty-gritty of daily life. Their future roommates and spouses will thank you!
*Sharing stories together in which children either learn to be thankful or already exhibit a grateful attitude. Some great examples are Pollyanna, The Secret Garden, The Little House Series, and the Berenstain Bears Count Their Blessings.
*Habitually thanking other people and God (or whoever/whatever your family chooses to thank). Thinking back to item #2, that is a great time to remember to thank your kids for their help. Also, thanking them when they behave exceptionally well or even just tolerably well has the added benefit of raising the probability that they will behave that way in the future. I wish that I spread the gratitude around more generously than I actually do, especially to my spouse and our extended family. Such an important element of this is to be mindful, to stop and think about all that other people do for us, rather than become complacent and expect them to do whatever they do. Again, as I strive to teach my kids this, I am reminded how much I need a refresher myself.
*Treating treats as treats and not those things you can expect to get
whenever you want. This is a difficult one, because so many different cultural factors play into our greed and gluttony. There is the “keeping up with the Jones’” mentality. If we don’t give our kids an Easter basket with the biggest chocolate bunny the store has to offer, then we must not love them. If we don’t spend a million dollars on our kid’s birthday party, we feel like shabby, penny-pinching parents. If we don’t put our kids in enough extra-curricular music, art, dance, sports, or science classes by the time they are three, they might not get into college. Then there is the marketing ploy of every US business to milk the cash cow of holiday spending. And we are not just talking about Christmas anymore. From New Year’s Day to New Year’s Eve, there are so many holidays to celebrate with special (code word for sugary, fatty, heart-attack-inducing) foods, Home and Garden-quality decorations, and elaborate gatherings. The number of holidays combined with the number of birthday parties combined with all the extra-curricular graduations and performances have our kids singing, “It’s a Party Everyday, a Party Everyday!” Don’t get me wrong. I love parties. And sugary, fatty, heart-attack inducing foods. And parties with sugary-fatty heart-attack inducing foods. But not everyday. We need some ordinary, vegetable-eating, chore completing days in order to appreciate those special days. There is something to be said for scarcity breeding gratitude. I don’t have an easy answer for this one. The first step is for us all to admit that there is a problem. The next is to begin to practice the art of less. Part of our decision to embrace minimalism came out of a desire to get a handle on the treat-mania. This will look different for each family. But for every family it will mean learning to say no, to set boundaries for yourself, for the other adults in your kid’s life, and for your kids
*Giving of your time and money, generously and responsibly. I am beginning to learn more about what this means. On the thread that inspired this post, one friend cautioned against taking our first-world kids to the developing world to serve in order to show them the sad poor people, so that they appreciate what they have. I agree with this caution, but I don’t want that fear to keep us from taking excursions outside our comfort zone in a responsible way. If we approach anything with pride and a feeling of superiority, whether with our neighbor or with a family in a far of country, we lose an opportunity to learn about the deeper treasures of life. The point of these excursions is not to threaten our kids that they better be grateful that they have it so much better or they might end up like those others. The point is to find those people from all walks of life who practice contentment and gratitude, so that we can come away from the experience with stronger muscles of thanksgiving. If we look for those people who exemplify an attitude of thankfulness, whether rich or poor, we open ourselves up to see the world outside our own boxes. We open ourselves up to know what it is to be thankful both in abundance and in need, in health and in sickness, when we get what we want and when we don’t. We begin to learn the true meaning of gratitude.